Martin, the soulful-looking mutt that stars in the upcoming ABC show Downward Dog, is a navel gazer with an attitude. That much is obvious from his soliloquies about his place in the household hierarchy and his thorny relationship with the cat.
See, Martin is a talking dog who’s as prone to existential crises as he is to oversharing. He speaks directly to the camera and narrates the half-hour series about his life with his owner Nan, played by Fargo breakout actress (and Emmy nominee) Allison Tolman.
The fact that Downward Dog is a different breed of talking-animal show—not a broad, slapstick comedy—poses a unique marketing challenge for its network and producers.
On top of that, there’s the scrutiny from animal activists that comes whenever a real dog lands a major role in a piece of entertainment. The trend, especially in film, has been shifting to computer-generated animals instead of live performances to avoid criticism and potential animal welfare issues, as was the case with A Dog’s Purpose, which spurred a boycott of the film.
In truth, nearly everything about Downward Dog is unconventional, from its origins as a Pittsburgh ad agency’s passion project to its well-received launch at the Sundance Film Festival, the first broadcast comedy to score that coveted platform.
Any confusion about the eight-episode series, premiering May 17, could work in its favor, said Michael Killen, co-founder of Animal, the production, advertising and visual effects company that debuted Downward Dog a few years ago as one-minute webisodes before helping turn it into a prime-time TV property.
“In an era of way too much TV, we hope this will be able to cut through,” said Killen, an executive producer on the ABC series, “even if people have the wrong idea about it.”
Taking a cue from promotions for shows like FX’s Atlanta and TBS’ Search Party, ABC is positioning Downward Dog as a dramedy, stamped with the Sundance laurels in print ads for indie credibility. On-air and digital promos are more cinema verité than setup-punch line, using snippets of Martin’s sometimes dark and cynical musings. “Life isn’t always a walk in the park,” says one tagline. Translation: this is not Dog With a Blog.
Downward Dog looks at the world from Martin’s perspective, while “projecting human emotions onto him,” said Samm Hodges, a director at Animal and executive producer of the ABC show who provides the dog’s voice. “The humor is in how angsty he is. He suffers from modern ennui.”
That keeps the show far from the typical talking animal trope, he said, even though execs at Animal cut their teeth, so to speak, on such commercial fare as Taco Bell’s Chihuahua and the Real California Cheese campaign (chatty cows and sheep).
That history grounded them in the rigors and standards of working with real animals, which centers on “giving absolute control to the trainers,” Hodges said.
Martin, who in real life is a rescued shelter pup named Ned, got to be himself on the Pittsburgh set, Hodges said, “doing only the things a dog would really do. There are no daring rescue scenarios. Sometimes we would shoot whatever he was doing and write around it,” making use of Ned’s limited work schedule.
Animal welfare advocates have focused their efforts in recent years on wild animals in entertainment, pushing for an all-CGI future. For domesticated pets like cats and dogs, “we don’t have any philosophical objection to their being included as long as there’s no harm or stress,” said Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the U.S. “It’s important from a cultural perspective to have entertainment imitate life, and animals are central to that.”
In Downward Dog, Nan rescues Martin from a shelter, an example of “just the kind of message we want to convey,” Pacelle said. “Anything that may help the larger societal problem of homeless animals and needless euthanasia is positive.”
There may be tie-ins with animal rescue groups to go along with the show’s run, and producers created a behind-the-scenes video of Ned’s journey from traumatized shelter dog to small screen star.